How to Cut Poverty in Half in Ten Years

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The Nation

How to Cut Poverty in Half in Ten Years

The Half in Ten campaign—launched in 2007 by the Center for American Progress, Coalition on Human Needs and Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights—set an ambitious goal: to cut poverty in half over ten years. Today, it seems almost fantastical on the face of it, given the nation’s polarization and soaring political and economic inequality.

But with 200 coalition members across the nation combatting poverty, Half in Ten remains steadfast, as campaign manager Erik Stegman described at the release of its third annual report, which tracks progress towards the campaign’s ultimate goal.

“It’s an achievable goal because we’ve done it before,” said Stegman, who co-authored the report along with other contributors, including Sister Simone Campbell, who wrote the foreword. Stegman writes that the War on Poverty contributed to cutting poverty by 43 percent between 1964 and 1973, “to a historic low of 11.1 percent.”

Of course, the best anti-poverty program is a job that pays a decent wage.

“We know how to do it, and we can do it again,” asserts Stegman.

Half in Ten has always done an exceptional job of laying out the policy choices that are there for the taking if we want to dramatically reduce poverty. But the heart of its work lies in showing how public policy decisions intersect with the lives and experiences of real people.

So it was fitting that among the many stellar speakers who participated in the release event—including Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez; Congresswoman Barbara Lee; Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; and Reverend David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World—the first speaker was Chelsey Hagy, a mother of two from southwest Virginia.

Hagy grew up in a middle-class home and enrolled in community college at age 17. She got pregnant, and the father of her child was incarcerated prior to Hagy’s giving birth. She worked two part-time jobs but couldn’t make ends meet. She turned to assistance—public housing, WIC, Medicaid and food stamps (SNAP). Her son was diagnosed with Fragile X syndrome, a genetic disorder that will require special education and medical care throughout his life.

“I found myself traveling from doctor to doctor, adding more expenses that could not be met without the assistance of these programs, especially Medicaid,” said Hagy.

She enrolled in a residential nursing program, her sights set on obtaining a job that pays a living wage. She married and had a second child, but later separated from her husband. While pursuing her degree, her sons attended Early Head Start, where the family benefitted from early childhood education, preventive healthcare and nutrition classes and parental instruction.

With two semesters left to earn her degree, Hagy’s financial aid was exhausted. She turned to a Workforce Development program where prerequisite testing and a career assessment determined she would “likely be successful in the nursing field.” The program then paid for her tuition, books, uniform and stethoscope, as well as her state board exam fees.

Hagy graduated in May and works full-time as a cardiac nurse. She works twelve-hour rotations and “nursing students [now] shadow me.” She and her children no longer need government assistance, and Hagy has remarried and purchased her first home.

“I cannot imagine where my life would be right now if it weren’t for the support and opportunities that were given to me,” she said. “If I as a single mother of two—one of whom has special needs—can do it, anyone can.”

But it is this very notion that “anyone can” that is at stake in the current public policy debate, and Half in Ten explores that in a comprehensive manner in its report. It proposes that indeed people are worth investing in so that they can succeed and contribute to society; and that our country has the wealth to ensure that those who can’t work, or can’t find work with decent wages, can obtain the services needed to escape poverty.

The report focuses not only on the 46.5 million people living in poverty, but also on the more than one in three Americans—106 million of us—who live below twice the poverty line, on less than $36,600 annually for a family of three. While these families and individuals might not officially be in poverty, they are struggling to afford the basics—food, housing, healthcare, education—and are just a single hardship away from poverty.

If you read this entire 113-page report, I guarantee that you will know more about anti-poverty policy and the necessary battles that lie ahead than most members of Congress.

The report suggests that the biggest obstacles to the kind of “shared prosperity” we had in the three decades following World War II—where all incomes were lifted by an expanding economy—are slow and inequitable economic growth and a proliferation of low-wage work, all exacerbated by the sequester and austerity policies.

Not only does the United States have the most extreme economic inequality it’s seen since the 1920s, but in the past three years the top 5 percent have had income growth of more than 5 percent, while the bottom fifth has seen its income fall by .8 percent (middle-class incomes have fallen even more over this same period).

Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said at the release event that of all the factors contributing to contemporary growth in poverty, economic inequality is the most significant.

“The largest factor for increasing poverty rates over the last thirty or forty years is the increase in economic inequality,” said Bernstein. “Economic inequality added [about] 5 percentage points to the growth of poverty over this period. If the economy is growing but the growth isn’t reaching the bottom half, then you’re going to have more poverty.”

Of course, the best anti-poverty program is a job that pays a decent wage. But the report notes that the economy needs to add 8.3 million jobs to reach pre-recession employment levels, and at the current rate of growth that would take until 2018. Meanwhile, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the sequester will result in “the loss of nearly 1 million more jobs by the third quarter of 2014.”

As for decent wages, too many of the jobs in this recovery pay low wages. The report points out that more than 40 percent of job growth in 2012 occurred in low-wage sectors. Many of these jobs pay the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour—a poverty wage that leaves a full-time worker earning approximately $15,000 per year. (The tipped minimum wage is just $2.13 an hour, which results in the people who serve us our food being twice as likely to need food stamps as the general population.) If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation it would stand at $10.75 an hour; if it had kept pace with increased productivity it would be $17.19.

“We continue to work to pass an increase in the minimum wage, and you can rest assured that the president will continue to exert his leadership,” said Secretary Perez, who delivered an impassioned speech that in part celebrated the historic decision to extend minimum wage and overtime protections to homecare workers.

But when I asked whether the president would sign an executive order to give priority to federal contractors who pay a living wage, Perez offered no such assurance.

“We’re looking into a range of interventions to address the issue of poverty,” he said. “We’re looking at every tool in our arsenal.”

If we can’t take common-sense action on the sequester and wages, it’s tough to envision how we get to other smart policies recommended in the report, unless we build a broad-based movement that is visible, disruptive and ongoing—as we have seen with marriage equality and immigration reform. The report recommends creating a Pathways Back to Work Fund which would include temporary, subsidized jobs—supported by both Democratic and Republican governors—as well as summer and year-round employment opportunities for low-income youth (14 percent of young people ages 16 to 24 are neither in school nor working); investing in jobs that will rebuild and modernize our infrastructure; passing paid leave legislation so that low-income workers don’t have to choose between their paycheck—and maybe keeping their job or making rent—and caring for themselves or a sick child (only 34 percent of low-wage workers had access to paid sick leave in 2013); and expanding access to higher education and skills training—funding for the Workforce Investment Act has declined by $500 million since 2010.

But as long as wages remain low, and job growth is slow, then the safety net is going to continue to be strained—even more so if congressional (mostly, but not entirely) Republicans are successful in their efforts to cut it further. Food stamps (SNAP) kept a record 4 million people out of poverty last year, but benefits were cut last week and both the House and Senate are now deliberating further cuts in Farm Bill negotiations. The Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit lifted 9.4 million people above the poverty line in 2011, but as the report notes a budget deal only extended the expansions of these credits through 2017, while it made the Bush era tax cuts permanent for most Americans. The percentage of uninsured people fell from 15.7 percent to 15.4 percent last year, but medical out-of-pocket costs also pushed 10.6 million families into poverty in 2011, and 27 Republican governors are currently refusing Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. If all states opted into Medicaid expansion, 17 million Americans could gain health coverage. Welfare reform is still hailed by many in both parties as a success, but it resulted in cash assistance (TANF) reaching only 25 of every 100 families in poverty compared to 68 for every 100 in 1996.

“I was a food stamp recipient,” said Congresswoman Lee. “If it had not been for the safety net, and my government, and an opportunity to go to college, I never would be where I am today.”

Lee said repeatedly that there is a need for a “grassroots movement” if we are to change the conversation in Washington and make the kinds of sensible investments in people that this report outlines.

Stegman said there is a hunger for the kind of movement Lee is calling for among Half in Ten’s grassroots networks across the country.

“One of the things I hear constantly is ‘we are sick and tired of the debate as it is right now. We are sick and tired of the cuts, we don’t even know where they are coming from,’ ” he said. “Most people don’t know what sequestration is versus the last round of cuts that happened through appropriations. What they know is it’s the wrong track.”

“This January will mark fifty years since President Johnson waged a War on Poverty. We have to build on what works, but also recognize that our economy and country have undergone dramatic shifts since then, and our laws and workplaces haven’t caught up,” said Melissa Boteach, director of Half in Ten. “We can’t just get stuck fighting defensive battles, even though it’s important to oppose austerity policies. We have to show an alternative path forward, and fight for our country to invest in people.”

If you read this entire 113-page report, I guarantee that you will know more about anti-poverty policy and the necessary battles that lie ahead than most members of Congress. There is so much in the report that deserves attention that I don’t have space for: the fact that the employment rate for people with disabilities is just 17 percent—their poverty rate more than 28 percent—and that programs like Supplemental Security Income and the Earned Income Tax Credit could be strengthened to reverse these trends; that childcare assistance policies are worsening in twenty-seven states in 2012, making it harder for single mothers—who have a poverty rate of 42.5 percent—to go to work; the sequestration cut of $4.2 billion in 2013 funding for children—concentrated in the areas of education, early learning and housing—comes at a time when more than one in five children live in poverty.

But in the end, it might all come down to this: when you consider Chelsey’s story—and those of other families and individuals who are profiled throughout the report—do you think human capital is worth investing in, and that people are worth protecting from severe hardship? If so, how hard are you willing to fight for that?

Because don’t doubt for a second that it won’t require a real, sustained and hard fight to follow the kind of roadmap provided by Half in Ten in this report.

Greg Kaufmann

Greg Kaufmann is the poverty correspondent for The Nation and a contributor to BillMoyers.com. He covers poverty in America primarily through his blog, This Week in Poverty. Greg has been a guest on Moyers & Company, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, NPR’s Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane, Here & Now, The Thom Hartmann Program, Stand Up! with Pete Dominick and The Matthew Filipowicz Show, as well as various local radio programs. His work has also been featured on Common Dreams, CBSNews.com, NPR.org, WashingtonPost.com, and BusinessInsider.com. He serves as an advisor for Barbara Ehrenreich’s Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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